2021 | Transportation

UPDATED: County executive challengers, incumbent see things differently on I-270 project

Riemer helped craft deal to secure support by majority of council

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Clockwise from top left: County Council Member Hans Riemer, County Executive Marc Elrich, county executive candidate David Blair and County Council President Tom Hucker

This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2021, to correct that the funding secured in Riemer’s negotiations with the Department of Transportation and Gov. Larry Hogan’s office would pay for one of two transit projects in the county, not both.

This month, the state Board of Public Works is expected to take a critical vote on Hogan’s proposal to widen I-270 and parts of the Capital Beltway.

The project’s first phase includes widening I-270 all the way to I-70. There will be an environmental study first up to I-370, then another up to I-70.

The Board of Public Works vote would allow the Maryland Transportation Authority to begin a toll-rate setting process that also involves the State Highway Administration.

The project’s first phase includes reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction. The price tag for it is about $6 billion.

The regional Transportation Planning Board voted in June to remove the project from an air quality analysis, jeopardizing its chances of obtaining federal approval and funding.

But as the project came back to the board in July, there were signs of a different outcome because of new members on the board and a new outlook among some in the region.

Montgomery County Council Member Hans Riemer helped spearhead a deal with the Department of Transportation and Hogan’s administration to get four other council members to support the proposal: Craig Rice, Gabe Albornoz, Nancy Navarro and Andrew Friedson.

Riemer said in an interview that he led the negotiations, working with Transportation Secretary Greg Slater and members of the Hogan administration to secure funding for critical transportation projects.

The day after the five-member council majority announced its support, the Transportation Planning Board reversed course with a new vote to include the project in an air-quality review, preserving its momentum.

Riemer said a financial commitment was one critical piece in his negotiations with Hogan’s administration and the Department of Transportation.

He said toll revenue the state receives from the project will help pay for engineering and operation and construction of one of two long-awaited transit projects in the county: the Corridor Cities Transitway or a bus rapid transit route along Md. 355. That contribution in revenue is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Corridor Cities Transitway, or CCT, is a 15-mile bus line from near Clarksburg’s former COMSAT facility to the Shady Grove Metro station. The county’s planning staff has estimated the cost at more than $800 million. 

In 2019, the state removed the CCT from the development and evaluation phase of its Consolidated Transportation Plan, which details transportation projects statewide. This year, the state added it back in, but no funding has been allocated for engineering or construction through the next five years.

The Md. 355 bus rapid transit route would be in two pieces: from Clarksburg to the Rockville Metro Station and from the Rockville Metro Station to the Bethesda Metro Station.

Project costs vary depending on how it would be constructed. According to a 2019 county planning study, the maximum cost would be $886 million.

Some Montgomery County leaders agreed with Riemer’s accord. Some did not.

Bethesda Beat asked Riemer, County Executive Marc Elrich, county executive candidate David Blair and County Council President Tom Hucker to assess the project and the recent turn of events.

Riemer and Blair are running against Elrich for county executive in a Democratic primary in 2022. Hucker has said he is considering getting in the race, too.

Elrich 

Elrich criticized Riemer, saying his negotiations with the governor and the Department of Transportation did not guarantee that road improvements would continue from the American Legion Bridge all the way up to I-70. Neither does the Transportation Planning Board’s vote in July, he said.

“If we’re trying to stand up for our residents, and we’re trying to solve the traffic problem, we should’ve carried this to the point where you can turn around and tell people, ‘We got you the road the way it needs to be, it’s as long as it needs to be [and we] protected people from incursions,’” he said. 

Elrich said Riemer’s decision to work with four other council members to shift the county’s position on the project late in the project was improper — and it disrupted Elrich’s own work with the administration and Department of Transportation.

Also, the funding Riemer secured was not enough, he said.

“That’s so trivial in the scheme of our needs,” Elrich said of the financing pledged in Riemer agreement. “And we never were negotiating for dollars. … They settled for dollars, and they sold the whole community out.”

Blair 

Blair supports the Riemer deal, saying it found common ground between widening the road and getting funding for transportation projects. 

He said traffic along I-270 is one of many reasons businesses find it hard to locate in Montgomery County and why job growth has slowed in recent years. 

“I don’t believe there is a perfect solution here. … With that being said, I’m pleased with the approach the council took,” Blair said. “We’ll get both the widening of 270, as well as the commitment from the governor’s office for funding transit in the county.”

The issue has plagued the county for years, Blair said.

Six or seven years ago, he was recruiting someone from Dallas to come work for him. The woman planned on moving to Poolesville, about 14 miles from the office. Blair feared the woman would face an hour-long commute because of traffic. 

The council’s current position ensures something will be done to address traffic congestion, Blair said. 

“It’s time that we stop talking about it and start executing it,” he said.

Hucker 

Hucker said he hopes the state follows through and actually funds the Corridor Cities Transitway and Md. 355 bus rapid transit project.

But he didn’t sign on to the council statement, because it doesn’t go far enough in addressing transit projects the county needs, he said. He is concerned that much of the money from the developer, Transurban, would go directly to the state, not the county.

County officials don’t oppose improvements to the American Legion Bridge and I-270, but that must include enough funding for transit projects, Hucker said. And the state should be doing more outside the project to help the county with its transportation project goals, he said.

“It’s the state’s responsibility to fund CCT. It’s the state’s responsibility to fund [Md. 355] BRT,” Hucker said. “Those are marquee transit projects that our residents deserve that have a multi-county impact.”

Riemer

Riemer said his negotiations with the governor’s office and Department of Transportation were crucial because they secured toll revenue for upfront engineering costs. That will help speed up the process for the Corridor Cities Transitway and Md. 355 bus rapid transit system. 

He highlighted a critical part of the resolution — the Transportation Planning Board reinstating the I-270/I-495 project into the air quality project, which ensured “construction, final delivery, and operation, funded through ongoing toll revenue.”

“I think it’s a significant down payment on the whole project and it’s a good-faith commitment,” Riemer said. “I think they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

When asked about criticisms that the deal didn’t get county officials anything substantially new, Riemer disagreed.

“They’re moving forward now, and there’s a commitment for the whole project,” Riemer said, referencing the transit aspects along with the road widening. “It wasn’t more than two years ago, the governor actually removed the Corridor Cities Transitway from his transportation budget. I don’t know how anyone can say this was going to come anyway.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com